Posted Feb 28 2012 12:30PM
HERSHEY, Pa. -- It sits there off the highway in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, looking as anachronistic yet functional as a horse-drawn Amish buggy, hardly the place you'd have expected the nuclear age to arrive in professional basketball.
On the night that Wilt Chamberlain left his mushroom cloud of 100 points over the NBA, the Hershey Sports Arena was already 25-years-old-going-on-infinity and now, another half-century later, it is as if the clock has merely stopped ticking.
Constructed during the Depression by Milton S. Hershey, the founder and benefactor of the eponymous town, it was the first concrete, barrel-shaped shell roof built in the United States and, at the time of its opening on Dec. 19, 1936 -- the year of Wilt's birth -- was the largest in the world. Its 3-1/2-inch-thick shell had a span of 222 feet and a rise of 81 feet. It was stiffened at 39-foot intervals by massive, two-hinged arch ribs and the locals proudly boasted that it was a "homemade structure, constructed by Hershey men."
According to Richard Weingardt, P.E., CEO and chairman of a Denver-based structural engineering firm, "Hershey Arena has forever been etched in engineering history" long before it became ground zero in NBA history.
For the Philadelphia Warriors, who were playing their third game of the 1961-62 season in Hershey, it was merely a drafty old barn where the rims were marshmallow soft and forgiving.
From the outside, even now, there is no sense of nostalgia conjured up, as there is in the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field in Chicago or Lambeau Field in Green Bay. It is as cold, hard and faded as an old man's regrets, and once you step through the doors, barely a single degree's warmth of difference.
Outside the main entrance a small cast-iron sign -- gold letters against a blue background -- on a pole provides one of the few reminders of what took place inside those walls:
Wilt Chamberlain's Scoring Record
In a basketball game played here on March 2, 1962, Philadelphia Warriors center Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the New York Knicks -- a record for points scored by a single player in any National Basketball Association game. The Warriors won the game, 169-147, in front of 4,124 fans. During that season, Chamberlain set other records by averaging 50.4 points per game and by scoring more than 50 points in each of 45 games.
Inside the lobby, tucked around a corner and out of the way, behind a glass case, hangs the iconic black-and-white photo of Chamberlain holding up the sheet of paper with the hand-written 100 and a card that says:
A Night to Remember.
"That night (March 2, 1962) will be forever engrained in basketball history. I doubt that such a feat will ever be accomplished again."
-- Bob Payne, Hershey native on WKBO radio
That's it. Those are the only traces of Chamberlain and what is the most singular event in NBA history in the arena or on public view anywhere in Hershey. To find any more details of the night -- a game program, The Wigwam, 35 cents; a copy of the boxscore; an audio tape of the fourth quarter of the game -- one must visit the town's archives, sign in and handle the few relics with care.
"To be honest, it wasn't that big a deal around here at the time," said security guard Michael Smith, who grew up about 25 miles away in Ashland, over the hill, as they say locally. "This is Pennsylvania football country. And remember, in the early 60s the NBA wasn't really very popular.
"Sure, most of us had heard of Wilt Chamberlain. We were aware of the points he scored and some of the things he did. But it wasn't like we followed him. It's hard to recall. I think I heard that he scored 100 points the next day when we read about it in the newspaper. I don't remember anybody thinking it was a real big deal."
Stepping through the portal and into the arena, your eye is immediately drawn to the underside of the barrel-shape roof, in way still as breath-taking today as the sight of the 7-foot black man who could run like the wind and leap like a gazelle was to the little more than half-full crowd (capacity: 7,200) that was on hand that night.
Now called Hersheypark Arena, the building is mainly used these days as a practice facility for the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League and the home ice of the Lebanon Valley College hockey team. It is also open for public skating and for early rounds of the state high school wrestling and basketball tournaments, as well a few Christian concerts.
Their first four rows of seats are made of wood. The four multi-colored tiers are brown, tan, blue and salmon and yet the overall sense is still of a black-and-white time long before HDTV and even instant replay. The signs on the walls above the top level list the AHL standings from as far back as 1936-37 and 1957-58, championship years for the Bears. A 1996-97 Calder Cup banner is one of eight that flutters from the rafters. The others honor great Bears of the past. None that holds Wilt's No. 13.
A marquee at one end of the floor lists "Coming Attractions" and among them are the Ice Capades, Harlem Globetrotters, Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Circus and Liberace. Of course, the famous flamboyant pianist died in 1987. It turns out that is not an original leftover sign frozen in the past, but a replica put up for a recent charity event.
The arena was built with a central vacuuming system, a cutting edge technology for its time that is still operational today.
Downstairs on the event level most of the locker rooms look and smell as they did when Wilt and the Warriors called the arena a home away from home -- dark, damp, musty and sour with old sweat. There aren't lockers, only rows of benches or stools in front of hooks for the players to hang their clothes.
Hershey was known back then as a very innocent, trusting town and it was only natural that they didn't even have locks on the locker room doors and no guards posted in the hallways. So the wary visitors from the big cities of New York and Philadelphia made sure that a trainer kept all of their valuables in sack at courtside during the game.
In all the years and all the decades after the event, Hershey became a tourist town that drew from a wide swath of the surrounding area. Yet virtually nothing was done to keep alive the tie with Chamberlain. Up until just a few months ago, the original floor from the historic game was simply stored away out of sight, kept for years up in the rafters of a nearby barn. It was recently purchased by the 76ers to be cut into pieces and given away as a commemorative souvenir to each fan at Friday night's 50th anniversary celebration when the Golden State Warriors play the Sixers (two of Wilt's former teams) at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
"I guess people just forgot about it," said Smith, the security guard. "But that's not the kind of thing people would do around here. Good thing it was up in the rafters or it would have been ruined in the floods we had from so much rain last fall."
Take the elevator to the top level of the arena, get off, turn right and open a heavy wooden door to walk into the "Bear's Den." It is the 1936 version of a party suite, a private room where some of the well-heeled and fortunate customers sometimes got to mix with the celebrities who have performed at the arena. The walls are covered with autographed pictures of the famous. There is barely an inch or two of open space and a quick tour shows: Johnny Mathis, Minnie Pearl, Englebert Humperdinck, James Taylor, George Burns, the Spinners, Bonnie Raitt, Phil Collins, John Mellencamp, Natalie Merchant, Johnny Cash, Fleetwood Mac, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Benny Goodman were visitors.
You can walk around the room again and again, look high, search low and there is a man and a photo that you won't find.
Fifty years ago Wilt Chamberlain exploded into the history books and a spot in American culture in this place, yet a half century later it barely whispers his name.
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